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The Black Hand and the White Horse
It was an evening like any other. There was the growl of passing cars and the rowdy chorus of dogs, happy for the cool of the twilight; the shrill, jovial screams of the neighborhood kids, lingering on the street to savor the last rays of sunlight. The smell of fresh corn tortillas caught on the dusky breeze wafting in from the bedroom window and struck a nostalgic note in the pit of Fernando’s stomach. He paused for a moment to chance at catching the memory. It danced away from him, like sand in the wind, and he returned to the mirror. Paloma watched from the doorway, her forehead wrinkled with worry.
“Don’t go tonight…please?”
He sighed, folding down the collar of his dress shirt, stiff with starch. “I can’t miss this meeting, Paloma. I’ve missed the last two…what will they think of me?”
He watched his wife’s mouth turn down in an ugly frown, realizing he’d said the wrong thing a moment too late.
“What will He think of you, Fernando?” she hissed, flinging out her arm to point a somewhat accusatory finger at the table in the corner. His eyes jumped to its reflection in the mirror.
Her shrine. A ridiculous thing, laden with gaudy fake flowers and spent votive candles, burning rings of ash into the worn wooden tabletop. And in the center of it all, a chipping plastic statue of the Christ, a shepherd’s crook in is hand, a few woolen lambs nestled about his legs. He stared at me in the mirror, the black paint of his eyes strangely pitying. He turned from the glass, disgusted with the guilt he felt roiling in the hollow of his chest.
“Don’t scold me, Paloma,” he murmured, avoiding her eyes as he moved to her side of the room to fetch his jacket from the back of the door. He could feel her glare, blistering the side of his face like a merciless sun. “I’m not a little boy.”
“But you are not a man.”
The words struck him like a slap and he had no choice but to look at her. A string of silver tears ran along the line of her right eye and a desperate look had crossed her face like shadow. He glanced away from her, from that unbearable pleading expression; his gaze lingered on the curve of her belly, already so swollen with child, stretching the worn cotton of her night gown.
Maybe I ought to…
“Don’t wait up for me,” he murmured, edging past her in the doorway and pausing only to plant a firm kiss on her cheek. “Think of the baby.”
It was not until he reached the door at the end of the hallway that he realized the irony of his statement. But by then it was too late. He’d made up his mind, and d*mn it, he was going to follow through on his plans. He cursed the day Paloma and the rest of his fanatically Catholic family and neighbors had found out about his latest…fascination.
La Mano Negra met once a week, usually on Sunday nights, when the neighborhood was quiet and the streetlights flickered on an hour later. And while the horizon smoldered like a bed of dying embers and as the neighborhood kissed goodbye to another weekend, Fernando and his friends discussed the occult.
No, not friends.
He knew where his real friends were. Over at Ernesto’s, no doubt drunk as a couple of skunks by now, lucky die in hand, the little radio in the garage blaring with rapid fire brass and guitar strings. With some lust, he thought of the pay check folded haphazardly into the wallet in his pocket, the click of the dice, the visceral thrill of the first win, the second, and maybe the third…
But suddenly an image of Paloma came crashing into his mind, smothering the hungry, wretched thoughts and flooding his mind with her scent, so fresh in his memory; the glow of her skin, the keen shine of her eyes, bright with new life.
So with a sigh, he continued down the road, ambling into the empty street. He kicked a small stone with some frustration, shoving his hands into his pockets, careful not to feel for his wallet.
He didn’t know what Paloma was so upset about. She said she’d rather die than have to wait up another night just to hear him sulk into the house at some ungodly hour, pockets empty, belly full of whiskey, and mouth full of sour excuses. At least the men at these meetings didn’t take his money, their money. He came home at a reasonable hour, sober, and as rich as he’d left. And still she could not be satisfied!
In fact, it’d been one of his gambling buddies who had introduced him to La Mano Negra. He’d never really been one for religion or faith. No matter how many times Paloma had dragged him into the chalky white chapel, he’d never seen much prospect in seemingly aimless worship. He’d sit in the pew and let his mind wander.
However, this occult business had spiked his interest. The mystery of it, the thrill, the secrecy…h*ll, even the name resounded with some unknown power! And it was based in science, astrology, the planets and stars! Something real and visible. Proof!
Any old schmo could walk into a church and claim he was a disciple of Christ. La Mano Negra reserved its membership for a select few. To maintain its privacy of course, but also to be sure that its practices and beliefs were shared with those…worthy enough.
And Fernando was. He knew he was.
Perhaps that is what most enraptured him. The feeling of belonging to something important, something prestigious, exclusive. Something bigger than the stinking neighborhood and the church and the warehouse and the feeble paycheck; even bigger than Paloma or the baby. It was as if he’d been accepted into one of those universities, one of those far away places for rich boys, with white skin and opportunity…
La Mano Negra gave him that. And he’d be d*mned if those looks, so rank with disdain of his family, his neighborhood, even Paloma would keep him from this newest thrill.
Besides, he mused, it wasn’t as if La Mano Negra was anything…evil. It wasn’t as if he were cutting up chickens, slaughtering little cows. His hard expression melted into a grin and a short hard chuckle trickled from his lips.
It fell short however, as Fernando noticed how strange and hollow his laughter sounded, echoing off the night air. His amble slowed, his old shoes scuffing to a stop. He hadn’t noticed just how empty the street was until that moment; how alone he truly was. The houses dark, the road barren, and the sunlight steadily slipping away – it was as if the entire neighborhood had been deserted while Fernando had been so wrapped up in his thoughts.
He hadn’t heard a dog bark or a car pass in what seemed like forever. Not even the distant wail of a passing train…Fernando felt the wind pick up against the back of his neck and he shivered.
Eerie, he thought with some apprehension. But the fear was fleeting and he continued down the road, making a left on Canal St. only to find that he, in fact, was not alone.
Fernando stopped short once more and stood frozen to the spot, feeling his breath leave him all at once, as he locked eyes with a brilliant white horse; brilliant even for the stale yellow glow of the street lamp overhead.
It was some hundred feet away, simply standing, its globular eyes seemingly fixed on…Fernando. He stared right back, unable to move for the shock although his mind was rushing, tumbling, tripping over itself with questions.
Moments passed, beast staring at man and man staring back. The quiet quivered around them, broken only by the sounds of the animal; the scuffing of hooves, the occasional low grunt.
Proof, Fernando thought, Proof that it was real. Not just some figment, some trick of his tired mind. After some time spent debating in silence, Fernando moved forward toward the horse.
It’d wandered in off the road, he reckoned. Broken loose from a trailer-tractor on the freeway. Had had the misfortune of becoming the newest pet for one of his crazy neighbors. But as easily as these rationales formed in his mind, they just as easily fell into dust.
No, this…this was something he couldn’t reason away…not until maybe-
He got closer, moving with slow caution towards the beast, his eyes moving over its massive, statuesque body. Ivory. Not one shadow or speckle. Its eyes however, were the blackest Fernando had ever seen. By now he was close enough to smell the animal, the musty feral scent rising from its pelt.
It stood perpendicular to the street as if it were guarding the entrance to some mighty castle. Or perhaps blocking the way…
Fernando shook off the thought with a shrug; he’d seen enough. This was just too weird for him. And he’d be even later to the meeting, he thought with some annoyance. He started toward the sidewalk, turning away from the horse.
But it reared suddenly, releasing a jarring whinny into the night air. Fernando stumbled back in surprise, raising his hands in front of his face instinctively. He heard the sharp echo of the beast’s hooves as they hit the ground and saw that it had turned itself to block his way…
Again he made to move past the creature, only to have it spring up once more, grunting and screaming loudly. Fernando tried again, attempting to duck around the horse, run past it, fake left and then move right - anything! But to no avail. The horse would not let him pass.
The street was still resonating with the keen sound of crashing hooves and the quiet, desperate sound of shuffling feet when Fernando finally stopped his efforts. They were breathing hard, both beast and man, taking in the balmy night air in hungry gulps.
Fernando stared up at the beast, searching its terrible eyes for some reason, some sense, some explanation. All he saw was…himself. Standing in the reflective pool of black, sweating and angry and confused. Outsmarted by an animal…In those eyes, he looked like a child.
But you are not a man!
It struck him then, with that dark watery gaze bearing into him, that something was wrong. He could feel it, with the sweat on his brow and the wind whispering across his back. This animal was fantastic. This animal was an omen.
And Fernando had always been one for signs, for symbols. For proof and reason. And he’d be stupid if he didn’t take this animal as just that. Proof that he shouldn’t go to the meeting tonight or perhaps even the next one or the one after. A reason why he should go home to his wife.
He stepped away from the horse, slowly so not to cause alarm. The beast simply stared, watching him back away, its breathing now as low and steady as Fernando’s footsteps. He could still feel those immense black eyes, a soft pressure on the back of his neck, as his hurried feet carried him back down the street, around the corner, and finally back home.